It is the fate of libraries to die
By Christopher Caldwell
Published: April 15 2011 23:50 | Last updated: April 15 2011 23:50
The novelist Zadie Smith gave a passionate and witty talk in defence of public libraries on the BBC’s Today programme two weeks ago. She hoped to dissuade a council in north-west London from closing the Kensal Rise library, close to where she grew up. It didn’t do a bit of good. The council announced this week it would shutter that library and five others besides.
Britain’s cuts to libraries are deep. They could reach 400 closures before local authorities are through. But libraries face pressure throughout the developed world. In the wake of the financial crisis 15 per cent of US libraries reduced their hours. In 2005, Salinas, California – home to John Steinbeck and the setting for a lot of his books – hit budget difficulties and briefly closed all its libraries.
Ms Smith knows a lot about libraries, what goes on in them and what they mean to people and to society. She rightly describes them as “lowly gateways” to higher things. What she knows less about is the present-day politics of them. She wrongly believes libraries are imperilled because Etonians and Harrovians in the cabinet are not “able to conceive why anyone would crawl on their hands and knees for the privilege of entering one”. (No one in the cabinet went to Harrow.)
Libraries are imperilled for a different reason: because local councils feel they have better things to do with the money. This winter, Keith Mitchell of Oxfordshire county council, discussing the possibility of closing 20 of 43 local libraries, warned that if the libraries were not cut, something else would be, “and that will most likely be elderly care, learning difficulty care and care for people with mental health problems because those are the biggest bits of our budget”. Libraries are vulnerable to cutting in the US because local welfare expenditures are often mandated by law, while library expenditures are discretionary.
Our beautiful Anglo-American public libraries provide a metonym for today’s governing impasse. In olden times, people wanted a state that built great monuments, even at the price of being distant. Nowadays, people prefer a state that is intimate and therapeutic, one that will solve the practical problems of day-to-day life.
Libraries belong to a brief transitional period at the end of the 19th century – after the rise of democracy but before the rise of the welfare state. (The Kensal Rise library dates from 1894.) Libraries bridge the old style of government to the new. They are grand, often monumental but they answer to the needs and whims of the individual. They provide something for those of every political persuasion. So, what makes them so hard to defend against budget cuts?
“We paid our taxes in the hope that they would be used to establish shared institutions from which all might benefit equally,” Ms Smith recalled in her radio address. Even if such thoughts really did cross her mind, libraries are not institutions from which all benefit equally. They are used disproportionately by the old, the affluent and the ambitious. And there has been something shockingly reactionary about public libraries; library books have been, until quite recently, the non-transferable property of town taxpayers. If you were from the next town, you were not welcome to borrow them. Go to your own town’s library!
Such thinking is opposed to the spirit of the computer age. Today, it is considered immoral and inefficient if information does not flow freely from one jurisdiction to another. But, like the military sector, the library sector confounds every attempt to make it more efficient. Ms Smith’s council has considered replacing its six closed neighbourhood libraries with one £3m mega-library. While it may hold more books, it will be further away from the old libraries’ most important users: those too young, too old or too poor to travel long distances by car or public transport.
The question is whether such people really need libraries. The distinguished US librarian Eleanor Jo Rodger addressed this question head-on in a magnificent essay in American Libraries magazine. In a time of straitened budgets, government is urged to focus on necessities and cut frills. But are libraries a necessity or an amenity? The answer, Ms Rodger showed, is that they are both. In one sense, they are primarily an amenity. Studies show clearly that when people use the library, most of the time it is for “leisure reading or personal interest”.
But the founders of libraries considered them necessities. Ms Smith, Philip Pullman and other novelists can sound sentimental when they talk of libraries as our street corner universities or of how democracies require informed citizenries. But they are of one mind with Andrew Carnegie and the other stern pragmatists who set up our library system. They see that a certain amount of intellectual infrastructure is necessary to the maintenance of a free society. Modern people often make the mistake of assuming that “cultivation” or “polish” is the important thing libraries give their patrons. It is not. What is important, is that people build a basic toolkit of literary communication that leaves them uncowed by accounts built out of words, sentences and paragraphs. White Fang will serve this purpose as well as Madame Bovary.
“Supporters believe in the transformative value of the public library in the community ... even if they never use it,” Ms Rodger notes. In our time there is more support for the frivolous functions of a library (video loans and free internet surfing) than for its solemn ones (building a discerning citizenry). There is thus a paradox in this hybrid institution and that is what gives the present argument its strange tone. As a matter of politics defending amenities may work better than defending necessities.
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